As the studio’s first PC release arrives, learn how it elevated one of the franchise’s core gameplay mechanics.
Prepare for adventure–we’re thrilled to celebrate this week’s launch of Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection on PC!
We’ve previously equipped aspiring treasure hunters with the PC features and specs so you can enjoy Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy optimized for PC by Iron Galaxy Studios.
Whether the series is, well, Uncharted territory for you, or if you’re a seasoned spelunker who’s survived crushing encounters, we thought the Uncharted series’ PC debut offered a chance to look back on how these two adventures pushed the franchise forward. We unearthed some details about how Naughty Dog took a core pillar of Uncharted gameplay to brand new heights.
With Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End marking the franchise’s first original PlayStation 4 outing, the team saw a chance to push the franchise forward. Climbing is a prime example of that next-gen evolution; Uncharted 4 introduced a level of control players never had before while grounding Nathan Drake’s movements with stunning animations.
“With Uncharted 4, we wanted to add more depth to the climbing and look at it more realistically,” Animation Director Jeremy Yates explained.
A trip to an indoor climbing gym and lessons from an instructor early in production helped ground that endeavor. That trip resulted in some pretty meaningful lessons for Uncharted 4’s new climbing system. The team was equipped with firsthand experience and visual references to understand balance and weight placement, as well as the thoughtfulness that has to go into each movement.
“When we climbed on the wall ourselves, one of the first things we noticed was how much your weight is on your feet. That really translated into how the animations work,” Lead Game Designer Emilia Schatz said.
The team tried out a host of potential routes to take the system, from including a stamina bar to free-climbing that would allow players to scale a mountain in a route of their own choosing. There was a lot of fun and tension to be had, but the team needed to consider how climbing fit into the overall game.
“It almost became too complex. The important thing about any of our systems is we layer them with other systems. So while climbing itself may have been really amazing, we had to remember Uncharted 4 is not only a climbing game,” Schatz said.
With some of those systems stripped away, the focus came more clearly into view: leveraging climbing in Uncharted 4 to connect the player to Nathan Drake and eventually Chloe Frazer in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. And that meant giving players more control over Uncharted’s climbing than ever before.
“We wanted to be able to give the player very fine control and complete analog control over where Drake places his hands. That’s where the reach system was formed,” Yates explained.
The reach system in Uncharted 4 lets you do much more than simply hop from one handhold to the next along a clearly defined route. Using the left analog stick on the controller, the player can precisely direct how far and what angle Drake reaches out his hand. In practice, it looks fluid and realistic, but behind-the-scenes, there’s a clever system of rings that accounts for Drake’s possible moves. Many animations are needed to pull off each movement.
“That was a huge challenge to animate and design all those poses, and then from each of those [points], the delta between your base and wherever the handhold will be, that position might have a number of very specific animations,” Yates explained.
To ensure what was depicted in-game mirrored real life climbing terrain, the team constructed an adjustable rock wall in the mocap stage and captured parkour athlete Jesse La Flair going through the motions of Nate’s various movements.
“We replicated those rings, and there are holes pre-drilled in all those different positions so we could move handholds around easily…We had Jesse climb every conceivable combination we could give him,” Yates explained, noting that this allowed him to really ground the physicality of Drake’s motions.
To help achieve the reach system’s fluidity of movement, Principal Programmer Ryan Broner was among those working on getting this in-depth climbing system to function properly.
“The big change from Uncharted 3 was being able to hold onto two edges at once, and they could just be any distance apart,” Broner said. This meant work had to be done to ensure the upper body would move in the right direction, but, as the team learned at the climbing gym, the feet were also just as essential to consider.
“[We worked to have] the feet actually look for an edge instead of having them just dangling and swinging.”
“Ryan was…really getting full-body [inverse kinematics] working with all four limbs and your root and how they move together. That helped us create a much more organic system to climb on than we’ve previously been able to,” Yates said.
Imbuing climbing with more natural and variable movement also benefited making the actual paths Drake takes more dynamic and rewarding for the player.
“It allowed us to make more organic rock faces. It used to be that the distance you could move handholds from where Nathan Drake was [felt] pretty short,” Schatz explained. “In Uncharted 4, we were able to space those out, because Nathan Drake could reach quite a bit. By being able to space those out, we could make it so that the handholds themselves, visually, did not always imply a precise route. They were spaced out enough that you had to try it yourself and get used to how far his reach is.”
Not only are climbing routes more naturally embedded within the environment, but thanks to a set of tools the team worked with, more complex routes could be carved out to allow players creativity in how they wanted to progress.
“The organic integration into the wall was automated. What you see in-game…that’s dynamically placed,” Yates said, noting that background artists didn’t have to go in and virtually sculpt out each handhold’s spot. “In real time we could move the handholds around…It was so easy to add those handholds, so it was easier for us to develop what we called ‘Swiss cheese’ for some of these walls. We tried to give the player the ability to find their own path.”
Players can experiment with how they scale each stretch of rock or dilapidated building. Another way players have more agency over climbing is the piton. Born from the experimenting done with a more free-climbing system (you can see the idea of using two pitons at once below), the piton presents a bit of puzzle solving for the player to work through.
The pitons come into play as players hurtle toward specific walls, requiring the right timing and angle to hook the piton into the wall where they want to continue progressing.
“We want you to have creativity in how you can move around and place your handholds. You got a sense of, as a player, I need to decide ‘Where do I want Nathan Drake’s piton to be so I can jump to this ledge over there,” Schatz said. “The piton is a really cool thing we wouldn’t have been able to do without the analog reach of Nathan Drake [introduced in Uncharted 4].”
With all the ideas the Naughty Dog team implemented – and the lessons learned from those they didn’t – Uncharted 4’s climbing offers more precise, analog control over Nathan Drake’s climbing than ever before. That implementation continued with Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, which features Chloe Frazer as its protagonist while retaining all the work that went into Nathan Drake’s climbing mechanics. Lost Legacy allowed the team to integrate the piton, which features later in A Thief’s End, throughout more of Chloe’s adventure.
“We were really happy with how it turned out in Uncharted 4…and we were able to put it in a lot more in The Lost Legacy, and it was really able to come into its own there,” Schatz said.
Following the journey of this feature’s development, the team had some big takeaways.
“[Uncharted 4’s climbing showed] the importance of feedback in player systems,” Broner said. “In Uncharted 4, you push the stick, and even if you can’t reach anything, you see the body start to move in a certain direction. Getting that feedback allows you to adjust to your intended direction in a way that feels natural, and makes you feel more connected to the character.”
“We always really strive for the feeling of groundedness…because when that works really well, you identify more with the character, you’re invested more with the character,” Schatz said.
Everything evolved about the climbing system, from the reach system to the piton to the sheer fluidity and realism of movement, allows players to become invested in Uncharted’s characters like never before. We hope longtime fans can appreciate this essential part of the Uncharted experience on a deeper level, and we’re so excited for newcomers to experience Nathan and Chloe’s climbing, combat, and much more. Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection is available October 19, 2022 on Steam and Epic Games Store.